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Fuzzy Math
VW’s Diesel Dupe Could Kill

Volkswagen’s brazen cheating on emissions tests may lead to the premature deaths of 1,200 Europeans, according to a new report from MIT. The New York Times reports:

[S]cientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimate that 1,200 people in Europe will die prematurely, each losing as much as a decade of life, because of excess emissions from 2.6 million affected cars sold just in Germany.

All diesel cars produce high levels of nitrogen oxides, or NOx, because they burn fuel at a higher temperature than cars that run on gasoline, said Guillaume Chossière, a research assistant at M.I.T. and lead author of the study.

This is, first and foremost, a story of inexcusable corporate malfeasance. VW deliberately cheated emissions tests, and this new study suggests they have blood on their hands as a result.

But VW isn’t the only car company with a history of gaming European testing standards. In fact, that sort of fraudulent behavior seems to be something of an industry standard on the continent. Prototypes that are sent in to be tested are stripped of any superfluous features to help reduce drag and weight and therefore increase mileage—things like side mirrors or stereo systems are left out, while cracks between the cars’ panels are taped up. It’s been clear for years that Europe’s testing regime doesn’t reflect actual driving conditions, and the United States has called the EU out for it, too.

Diesel came into vogue because it offers slightly higher mileage than regular unleaded gasoline, and in Europe’s haste to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, it pushed this alternative fuel type aggressively. But the trade-off comes in the form of those nasty nitrous oxides and fine particulate air pollution, and that compromise is being born out in Europe’s increasingly smoggy cities. The EU’s wild pursuit of its own self-imposed climate targets has worsened the bloc’s air quality and, by sheer dint of the numbers involved, will have made a much greater impact on the public health than VW’s test rigging.

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  • DennisP

    Talk about corruption – there has been little punitive action against VW in Europe compared to the US. If fact, if it wasn’t for the US discovering the VW diabolical scheme to turn off the pollution controls during normal driving nobody would ever know about the worldwide VW cheating scheme. I guess it’s because VW is a European icon and has close ties to various levels of the German Government, and if that isn’t corruption I don’t know what is.
    The total fines thus far against VW in the US are well north of $20 and still ongoing. Beside that, VW has to mitigate all the vehicles that are on the road with the software to turn off all pollution control devices under normal driving; either fix them or junk them. It seems to me the whole rotten mess deserves even more punitive action against VW – like a 5-10 year ban on all VW vehicles in the US including Audi’s. That would get their attention!

  • Andrew Allison

    It’s an open secret that VW is not alone in the cheating. I can’t help suspecting that the managements of US manufacturers may be sweating a bit. The statement that “Diesel came into vogue because it offers slightly higher mileage than regular unleaded gasoline, and in Europe’s haste to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, it pushed this alternative fuel type aggressively.” is simply rubbish (http://www.dummies.com/home-garden/car-repair/diesel-engines/the-pros-and-cons-of-diesel-engines/).

  • Fat_Man

    1200 people? And you believed them?

    “Diesel came into vogue because it offers slightly higher mileage than regular unleaded gasoline”

    The figure usually cited is 25%, of which 15% is the greater density of diesel fuel, and 10% is the higher thermal efficiency of the diesel cycle compared to gasoline engines. This of course produces a simple and wrong conclusion as to which fuel should preferred for environmental reasons. The factor that is missed is that a barrel of crude oil cannot produce a an arbitrary amount of diesel. Typically, two volumes of gasoline are produced for each volume of heavier oils , not all of which is diesel. Other products include fuel oil, bunker oil, and asphalt. European preference for diesel has produced a market where US refiners ship diesl to Europe and import gasoline. Our air is cleaner, and our cars are cheaper to run.

    • Andrew Allison

      It’s not quite that bad (1.6:1): “In 2015, refineries in the United States produced an average of about 19 gallons of motor gasoline and 12 gallons of ultra-low sulfur distillate fuel oil (includes diesel fuel and heating oil) from one 42-gallon barrel of crude oil.” (https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=327&t=9). But since 98% of the US passenger vehicle uses gas, that’s not really an issue. Thanks to it’s better mileage, diesel produces less CO2 per mile driven, which is what drove the environuts. Unfortunately, the focus on CO2 led to the NOx and soot problems being overlooked (the Law of Unintended Consequences strikes again!). The other driver (sorry) was the fact that until a few years ago diesel fuel cost significantly less than gas — something which I enjoyed while owning an MBZ 240D for close to 20 years.
      p.s. I share your skepticism regarding the enviro-horror story du jour.

      • f1b0nacc1

        The obsession with CO2 (and the consequent ignoring of soot and NOx) is the real story here. Unlike CO2, NOx and soot are legitimate problems, and there is very little debate about the desirability of dealing with them.

      • Greg Olsen

        Lest we forget, predating the EU, there has been a bias towards diesel vehicles on the Continent due to the way vehicles were taxed, by engine displacement. That partially explains the prevalence of turbocharged small engines and diesel. There is more energy in diesel, hence a smaller displacement engine is needed to deliver the same HP and torque.

        Furthermore, fuel taxes are more business friendly. Diesel, a commercial fuel, is taxed at a lower rate than gasoline. It is the opposite of the regime in the United States, where the taxes are higher on commercial fuel, since the object of the fuel tax is to support the road network. Heavy vehicles, which invariably consume diesel, do more damage to the road than automobiles that usually run on gasoline, therefore, the US tax regime is more rational and more progressive.

        • Andrew Allison

          The popularization of diesel passenger vehicles was based on lower CO2 emissions (https://arstechnica.com/cars/2015/10/diesel-how-it-changed-europe-and-how-europe-might-change-back/). Taxes were one of the ways in which this was achieved. As noted above, the unintended consequences are just one more result of epic- er eco-stupidity. Another is the fact that Germans pay three times as much for electricity as we do, and are increasing, rather than decreasing, emissions thanks to the need to burn brown coal.

  • Three thoughts.

    (i) If 1,200 people are going to die prematurely in the future from this particular case/bout of diesel pollution, presumably quite a lot have already died – otherwise, how would anyone be able to predict the future numbers (and in circumstances in which emissions are supposedly or actually falling on a historical basis). Could we please have (if not the names which might be private) at least the dates of birth and places and ages at death of those who have already died of said definitively attributed cause.

    (ii) In the EU (which is less than Europe), it takes approximately 2 hours for 1,200 people to die; this from all causes. Just how accurately do we know causes of death and number of deaths that can be definitively attributed to each cause? Or is this one of those cause issues where there is a ‘contribution’ from just about everything, including: drinking any alcohol, ‘secondary’ smoking, eating meat, drinking non-diet cola, having the wrong weight, watching too much TV, living in the wrong place, etc.

    (iii) If the additional NOx emitted by these diesel cars (in excess of the ‘allowances’) is so dangerous, how many people have died and continue to die from NOx emitted by diesel engines in trucks, buses and cars that do not exceed the defined government limits? Having stood near a great many individual buses and trucks in city streets over the years, I can well believe those with respiratory diseases could be adversely affected. But I have never ever felt so affected by any car or other small vehicle (except those that obviously had a significantly faulty engine that would instantly fail its MOT test – the annual UK test for vehicles over a few years old). If the poison is in the dose (as I am reliably informed is the major and worst effect), how come government are not worried about the occurrences and places of the very highest doses of choking emissions of all sorts – right there on the sidewalk next to a single vehicle?

    Best regards

  • Boritz

    If the story was honest it would reveal that the actual number derived from the calculation was 1199.65 or some other non-integer. Is this model any more accurate than the global warming models? Since it involves science you have to ask these days.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    MIT is apparently as big a bunch of liars as VW. Do you know what botanists call Nitrogen, and Sulfur compounds? Fertilizers. Add that to an increase in the plant food Carbon Dioxide (from 285 ppm to 400 ppm), and it’s easy to see why the bottom of the food chain is thriving.

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